Estero High School offensive lineman Erik Arnold, a San Carlos resident at the time, and wide receiver Andrew Layton of the since-demolished Michigan Court housing project in east Fort Myers, helped take the 1998 Estero Wildcats to a state championship game, back when athletes from Dunbar neighborhoods were bused to other parts of the county. / file photo
William Scott III might be Lee County’s next high school football star.
The eighth-grader on the Fort Myers Firecats Pop Warner team has a rare combination of size, speed and power, positioning him to join Lee County’s pantheon of gridiron greats such as Noel Devine, Earnest Graham and Clyde Allen.
Those record-setting running backs were required to attend North Fort Myers, Mariner and Fort Myers High based on where they lived.
Unlike them, Scott has more control of his own destiny through the Lee County School District’s current School Choice system.
The system has flaws.
Lopsided outcomes like 64-6, 58-0 and 47-0 have appeared on scoreboards when Lee County teams played each other this season as the county’s better programs keep getting better and the worst programs keep getting worse.
This landscape of haves and have-nots happens as high school coaches and their friends take advantage of School Choice, cultivating a culture of influencing eighth-graders to attend their schools, according to Pop Warner coaches and administrators.
“Every high school, they come, and they watch, and they recruit the kids,” Eric Rivera Sr., director of football operations for the Firecats youth football teams, said at a game. “I don’t know all of the high school coaches, but I can pretty much guarantee you every school has someone here.”
Hector Avila, a Firecats coach, said that if a coach isn’t on hand for a game, one of his minions will be there instead.
“It’s more like they have bird dogs who go out and do the dirty work for them,” Avila said. “They’re runners, or whatever you want to call them. You don’t see the coaches doing it, but you see people associated with the coaches doing it.”
Six of the 13 Lee coaches surveyed by The News-Press said they have not made home visits or recruited eighth-grade players. The other seven coaches declined to comment. Recruiting of players to high school programs goes against Florida High School Athletic Association policy No. 36 in the organization’s handbook.
Dunbar defensive coordinator Sammy Brown and assistant coach Daniel “Pop” McGee watched a recent three-team Pop Warner tiebreaker, as did Cypress Lake assistant Chris Morant. A South Fort Myers assistant coach self-reported himself to his principal for being there, confirmed district spokeswoman Amity Chandler. She declined to provide his name.
School district policy allows high school coaches to watch Pop Warner games but instructs them not to wear school clothing. Brown and McGee were violating that guideline, but Brown said he was not aware of the rule and was wearing his Dunbar sweatshirt because he went to the game straight from practice in order to watch his cousins play.
Educating coaches about the guidelines, enforcing them and issuing punishment for violating the guidelines are decided by each school’s principal, Chandler said.
McGee said he was at the game as a member of the community.
“I wasn’t recruiting,” said McGee, who is also the regional director for Football University, another youth football organization. “You didn’t see me talking to kids, did you?”
The News-Press did not see Brown, McGee or Morant talking to any Pop Warner football players.
Valerie Church, the mother of Rahkeem and Shyheem Jacques-Louis, two of the top Lee County eighth-grade players with the Riverdale Wildcats, told The News-Press several Lee coaches have visited her home. She did not want to name the schools or the coaches in order to protect her sons, who turn 15 on Nov. 21.
Avila said changing from Choice to neighborhood schools might fix the recruiting problems.
“I would rather see them play more like back in the day, going to school in their own neighborhoods,” said Avila, a 1991 Cypress Lake High graduate. “I think then we’d see more state playoff representatives from here. You wouldn’t have so much of the talent spread out.”
Had William Scott III been playing youth football 30 years ago, he would have been assigned to Cypress Lake High based on his current address.
“I like having options,” said Cathy Scott, William’s mother. “I love sports, but academics come first. I expect him to perform to the best of his ability, no matter what it is.”
Cathy Scott said she and her son, who turned 14 last Sunday, were still deciding which Lee County school would provide him the best fit for academics and sports.
“I want to go to a good school academic-wise, and one where they have good sports programs,” William said.
Connect with this reporter: David Dorsey (Facebook), @DavidADorsey (Twitter).